By Bob Schulman
Let's see if you can name the two most popular beaches in the Caribbean. Here's a hint: They both feature some 80 miles of sun-drenched sands peppered by hundreds of resort hotels, many with the same brands (Barcelo, Dreams, Secrets, Melia, Iberostar and Riu to name just a few).
Need more clues? Spanish is the local language in both places, and both are sprinkled with historical attractions over 500 years old.
OK, here's probably the give-away: One of the beaches is in Mexico, and the other is 700 miles away on a central Caribbean island.
By now you've probably guessed the Mexican location. It's the booming Riviera Maya, where roughly one out of every four international visitors to Mexico beds down in close to 400 hotels dotting its Caribbean shores. You'll find it on the eastern edge of the Yucatan Peninsula, stretching from a village a little south of Cancun International Airport down to the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve.
According to the Riviera Maya's Destination Marketing Office (www.rivieramaya.com), the resort area hosted a whopping 3.6 million vacationers in its 40,000 rooms last year, up 200 percent over the past decade. Besides soaking up the sun, surf and sand, most visitors set aside a day or two to scamper around the pyramids of ancient Mayan cities such as nearby Tulum, Coba and Chichen Itza.
“We expect 2012 to be another monumental year in Riviera Maya tourism,” said DMO general director Dario Flota Ocampo. He noted the Riviera's guest stays are already up nearly 6 percent vs. the early months of 2011.
How about the mid-Caribbean superstar? That would be the Dominican Republic on the island of Hispaniola. The D.R., as the locals call their country, spreads out across two-thirds of the island – Haiti is on the other third – and it's blessed with several resort areas all told drawing a chart-topping 4.3 million overnight tourists a year.
Figures from the Caribbean Tourist Organization (www.onecaribbean.org) show that's more guests than you'll find shaking their booties to reggae, merengue, zouk and soca tunes on any other of the Caribbean's 25 top islands.
The Number 1 beach on the D.R. stretches down the eastern shores of the island on a long strip called Punta Cana about 175 miles west of neighboring Puerto Rico. Travel writers often compare the beaches and hotels of the Riviera Maya to those of Punta Cana, but instead of Mayan ruins the latter resort area offers side trips to attractions dating back a mere 500 years (when Christopher Columbus showed up here).
One such spot is an hour's ride inland at Higuey, believed to have been settled by Columbus' troops in 1494 – which if true would make it the oldest colonial city in the Western Hemisphere.
According to the CTO, runners up to the D.R. and the Riviera Maya last year were Cuba (which reported 2.7 million visitors) and the Mexican mega-resort at Cancun (some 2.2 million international guests). Rounding out the top seven Caribbean destinations, an estimated 1.9 million visitors left footprints on the talcumy beaches of Jamaica, a tad over 1.4 million bunked down in Puerto Rico and 1.3 million opted for getaways in the Bahamas.
Another 20.6 million vacationers came down the gangplanks of cruise ships for shore leaves on the islands in 2011. Heavyweights with over a million visitors in this category were (in descending order): the Bahamas, the Mexican island of Cozumel, the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Maarten and the Cayman Islands.
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